State workers worry about KPERS payments

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WICHITA, Kan. (KAKE) -

"What's going on with the state's pension plan?"

"Will budget maneuvers in Topeka cut into my monthly check?"

These are just some of the questions you've asked KAKE News as state lawmakers wrestle with how to make sure Kansas has enough money to pay its retired workers.  And we're not the only ones you're calling.

"We've had a few calls," said Steve Wentz, president of United Teachers of Wichita, the local teachers union.  "Retirees are always concerned about it."

The questions all revolve around what debates over KPERS funding mean for retired state workers or those nearing retirement.

"There is a contractual agreement on the front end," said Wentz.  "That I acknowledge I may not be paid as much as in the private industry, but at the end there is this guarantee, if you will, of a retirement income."

Wentz is nearing retirement  himself.  He says he's kept a close eye on the debates in Topeka.

The two biggest right now include a debate Monday afternoon in the Kansas Senate over whether the state should make-up some $115-million to cover an overdue payment from 2016 to the pension plan.  At the time, lawmakers delayed the payment due to financial difficulties.  They put it off again last year.  The Senate will hold a final vote Tuesday on whether to make up that payment this year.  

Supporters say this is a debt that costs the state more than others it could pay off this year.  Opponents say the state has too many other areas in need of additional funding and any decisions on this should wait until later in the session.

The other KPERS debate is over a plan to re-work how the state finances the pension plan, paying less now with an agreement to make payments for longer, called re-amortization.  

The governor suggested the refinancing plan as part of her proposed budget for the next two years.  It hasn't even come up for a hearing yet.  But a large number of lawmakers have come out against it saying it would cost Kansas taxpayers more than an extra $7 billion in the long term in extra interest payments.

"I think characterizing it in the idea of taking a 15 year mortgage and extending it to a 30 year is a pretty good analogy," Wentz explained.

This is the plan you've had the most questions about.  For now, Wentz says, it's unlikely to make any difference to current retirees or those nearing retirement.  It's teachers who will retire closer to the payoff date, in a decade or two, who could be impacted, if the state continues to delay making the payments it owes.

"Our teachers who are (just) 10 years or 15 years or less into their profession need to be engaged in this," Wentz said.  "The retirement thing is something that I think they should be paying more attention to.  I should have probably when I was in my thirties."